Of all the flights to Ladakh, from all the cities, he walks into mine. Recollecting an email introduction, he takes the seat next to me. And just like that I am in conversation with Sonam Wangchuk, the socially responsible scientist and sustainability crusader with an enormous following across the planet.
“It’s my first visit to Ladakh,” I tell him, “and I am hoping to see a snow leopard if it reveals itself. And I was hoping to meet you…”
“…If I revealed myself,” he adds, with impressive clock-speed and a lashing of humour.
Having stumbled upon his videos on YouTube and Instagram, @Wangchuksworld, I have long appreciated Wangchuk’s ability to pierce through everyday problems without the fear of toppling established beliefs, and to solve them using a combination of fairly basic science and thoughtfulness. Global warming is most visible in the poles, and the third pole, where he lives in the Himalaya, is melting in front of his eyes. By practising what he preaches, Wangchuk encourages us to use electric bikes and solar-heated and naturally cooled edifices wherever possible, to take short, cool showers, carry our own reusable drinking vessel, stop blind consumerism and avoid turning our homes into museums of garbage. Perhaps he is best known for his strikingly beautiful artificial glaciers (created by naturally freezing layers of water over a mass of sea-buckthorn bushes) whose meltwater nourishes plants in spring when it is most needed. Wangchuk’s talks are captivating as they are well articulated and studded with original notions, statistics, poetry and catchphrases. They encapsulate the need of the hour—to live comfortably without depleting nature or disrupting its delicate balance. In many short films, Ladakhi people beseech us city folk to “Live Simply so we can simply live!”
Wangchuk has made living simply the new cool.
He is working with youngsters too. Ladakhi students who have “failed” their final year at school get to attend Wangchuk’s institute, SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh), where they thrive as they learn via alternative teaching methods. In addition to instilling the three ₹(reading, writing and arithmetic), Wangchuk emphasises a more wholistic combination of three Hs—Head, Hand and Heart. The head learns and stores a variety of subjects, the hands grow food, build and repair, and the heart develops the instinct to care for others.
In our conversation in the sky, I ask Wangchuk what spurred him to become the person he is today, and he answers with tremendous clarity…
“I was very lucky to have grown up in a tiny village in Ladakh, where there was no school. I played in the Indus river, climbed trees, dug up soil and watched trees come out from apricot seeds. All my learning was organic. I could go mingle with villagers on the farms and learn from various people and speak in my own mother tongue without being made to feel stupid about not knowing English, and that helped me a lot. My mother was very innovative, and I learnt a lot from her. Schools can be very damaging for children’s curiosity, as they do what they are told to do, and are made to spell and learn by rote. It makes them lose their initiative and curiosity. A person’s software comes pre-loaded. If human being is the hardware, curiosity is the learning software which is broken down at school. And when I was dragged to school at nine, those were my darkest days. It took me three-four years to relaunch myself despite my strong base, in a so-called educated system. My early childhood explains why I am so curious about everything and can solve problems and innovate. If you have curiosity, you are young at 80, and if you don’t, you are old at 18. It’s very hard to build curiosity, it’s best not to break what you get as a child.
“The other great thing is empathy, which I got from my mother. Village women are so empathetic towards each other and people who pass by. They feed them, and think of them before they think of themselves, without any expectations. When tourism started in Ladakh, in the mid-1970s, foreigners would come to my village, for we have several monasteries around us. At home, I would see them having almost a quarrel, for the visitor wanted to pay money and my mother did not want to take any money. The visitor would leave somewhat upset at not being able to pay for the hospitality. I thought it was all settled, but then we would find money hidden under the tsampa (roast barley) bowl when we cleared up afterwards. This was the kind of hospitality and empathy that I grew up seeing.
“As an engineer, I could have run away to Silicon Valley to solve rich people’s problems, but if I can get through to the students who fail at school, solve the water and heat problems of my own people, I have found all the riches I need.”
Glancing out of the window, I can see the brown mountains dusted with sugar getting cloaked in thick cream as they rise. As we approach Leh, Wangchuk points to Nun and Kun, the tallest massifs in the eastern Himalayan range.
When I ask what got him thinking about sustainable living, Wangchuk says that by interacting with visitors from London and Paris early on, he was lucky to learn about the darker aspects of the modernisation that India was so gung-ho about at the time. They had seen the effects of industrialisation leading to the tearing of social fabric, the acid rain and the ozone hole, which nobody talked of in India. This gave him an overview of ecological scenarios, making him realise how vital it is to leave nature intact, and to heal the planet.
When asked what he wishes for, for his people, Wangchuk says that while Ladakhis were happy to be de-linked from Jammu and Kashmir, they would like confirmation of existing safeguards that protect them as tribal people under the Sixth Schedule of Article 244A of the Constitution, so that their unique culture remains preserved and unalloyed, their land is not overwhelmed by migrants from other parts of the country and their fragile high-altitude desert is not gouged by mines or ravaged by industry.
Anyone who takes the long view can see that the value of these pristine peaks and folds, and the ancient and colourful traditions that unfold within their valleys, will be worth far more if they are left untouched.
Upon landing and acclimatising in Leh for a couple of days, I go on to Rumbak village in the Hemis National Park to explore the wildlife that improbably inhabits the cold, thin air of the jagged peaks and glaciers.
And did the snow leopard reveal itself, you might ask. Yes, indeed, it did one day, for hours on end, and I tracked it through my scope as it cleverly used gravity, ingenuity and every natural advantage to stalk a herd of blue sheep in order to survive and thrive in its harsh and rugged environment. It reminded me of someone.
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world.
She can be followed on Instagram @geetikaforest